Although the Cincinnati Riverhawks have played only one year in the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues, they head into the playoffs on Friday as a veteran team.
That is because most Riverhawks have known each other since they were high school players playing for Team Cincinnati.
"I've probably played with 75 percent of these guys since I was 15," said forward Craig Yacks.
And the players are familiar with coach Nick Ranieri, who was the director for Team Cincinnati and has instructed most of the players for six years.
"Ninety-nine percent of the players I have known since their early years," Ranieri said. "Even before the season started, this team was already a family."
That familiarity has been a critical component of this season's success and has taken the Riverhawks beyond the standard expectations for rookie clubs.
With their 4-0 victory Saturday against the Kalamazoo Kingdom, the Riverhawks, who compete in the Premier Development League of the USISL, completed their first regular season 10-5 in the Mid-South Division.
That record has earned the Riverhawks the top seed in the Mid-South Divisional Playoffs, which begin Friday night in Jackson, Miss. Their opponent is not yet known.
Ranieri never expected less from the team. However, the coach knows regular season success does not automatically translate into playoff victories.
In the post-season, one loss means elimination.
Ranieri said that format is what makes soccer a "constant heart attack."
"Soccer is a beautiful game because you can attack for 90 minutes, get lots of shots on goal and not get anything. Then the other team may make one run, score and win the game," he said.
Said Yacks: "We know we can play with these guys, and the pressure of a one-game format isn't any different from what we play in college." But the Riverhawks' opponents and playoff pressure will be only part of next weekend's battle. The team must also contend with Jackson's oppressive heat and humidity.
To prepare, players will practice this week during the mid-afternoon heat, when Cincinnati weather feels especially cranky. The team will arrive in Jackson Thursday morning, which gives them less than 48 hours to acclimate.
The regular season helped prove the Riverhawks can adapt to new situations. Most players come from college programs where the emphasis is on speed and physical play.
USISL soccer is slower, less physical and favors teams that are mentally strong. Players have learned to communicate through body language instead of yelling while running down the sideline. Ranieri does not coach by screaming at his players. Instead, he has the players teach themselves after they make mistakes.
"We take them through different solutions, and they learn to see the game in a different way," Ranieri said.
As their record shows, the Riverhawks have made the necessary adjustments to compete in a professional league, and are now legitimate title contenders.
"We knew before the season that we could be successful and that we could play with anyone," Yacks said. "We just have to keep doing that in the playoffs."